Tulika Ladsariya: Chronicling the Art of Labor

Bricks, 2012, Enamel and Ink on brick
A former banker who found herself inexorably migrating into the world of art, Chicago-based Indian artist, Tulika Ladsariya focuses her artistic lens on exploring the dynamics of labor, language, and literacy through her paintings and sculptures. She describes her paintings as a social commentary on the division of society through the iconography of labor, whereas Tulika's installations are derived from familiar construction materials procured from her surroundings; this enables her to empathize with the workforce that she depicts and thus, think of art as labor.

Vibrant, textured, and punctuated with layers and meanings, Tulika's work takes the viewer into the landscapes and mindscapes that the laborers inhabit. Here she talks to Her Blueprint about the scope of her creative voyage so far.

What initially attracted you towards art? What compels you to keep on creating?
 I started my career working in portfolio management for a multi-national bank. However, I am a very visual person: I see and think in images and color. I enjoy working with my hands, philosophizing and questioning. To that end, a short sabbatical to study art in London turned into a lifelong career.

Many things compel me to create: the love of what I do, the need to make a difference through my art, the fear of obscurity,and the security of what I have renounced to be an artist. It is the desire to give shape to ideas- translating something intangible, like feeling and emotion, into something tangible such as a painting.

Could you take us through a journey of your paintings? How have they evolved in terms of technique and theme? What has remained unchanged? 
My work was initially very influenced by what was around me; specifically, Mumbai, which was in a constant state of disrepair. It then began to engage with the people who build and inhabit it. Some elements of my work are more abstract and others very graphic. The theme has been widening with time, encompassing more of what I feel, rather than merely just what I see. My use of color is one aspect of work which has significantly evolved; even though my palette is still bright and evocative, it has become more balanced over time.
Journey by Day, 2010, Mixed Media on Gessobord

'Burden of Dreams' and 'Improbable Elevation' depict realistic figures while 'Palliative Endeavors' is rooted in a much more abstract space. What motivated this transition? What is the essence of 'Palliative Endeavors'?

'Palliative Endeavors' [example from series above] was inspired by the vibrant cityscape. It used geometric shapes and collage to bring together form, texture, and color; it regards the city as a space devoid of humans and the impact of congested living upon the environment. The title of the works refer to my own palliative endeavor to fix the damage inflicted on it through the use of plaster tape [as such used in healing fractures] upon the two-dimensional surface. Moving from the physical space to the people who build and inhabit that space seemed like a natural transition. This gave birth to the series, 'Improbable Elevation' and 'Burden of Dreams' [examples below]. Even my more figurative paintings have elements of texture and abstraction that I weave in and out from.

Graceful Burden (diptych), Acrylic on board, Mixed media on faux brick panel
'Improbable Elevation' examines the precarious existence of those working at high elevation with potentially great risk to their lives. What did you hope to convey about their lives through this series?
The series started as observation: every building I inhabited was encased in bamboo scaffold. I started to examine two severe urban influences – construction and environmental impact – which represent the pinnacle and the nadir of human activity. Living in the high rises of Mumbai, I could see from my window the endless grey-blue seas and skies and the drab expanses of concrete. With every disaster, the city seemed like it was almost falling apart but stopping just short of it with everything secured by duct tape. To me, bamboo scaffolding was an allegory of this fragility. 

The Edifice Butterfly II, 2012, Acrylic on canvas
The workers are the unseen part of this landscape-building, restoring, without access to the inside, perched on the threshold. Their precarious stance and lack of harness speaks volumes of the lack of value of human life in India. I just wanted to bring them, their life condition and their struggle of migration to the forefront through this series.

You mention that your work explores labor and issues of language and literacy. What drew you towards depicting and engaging with these themes in your work?

I volunteered for a non-profit to teach laborers and this made me empathetic towards their struggle. Labor in all developing nations has been the job of the poor: where you use your body, rather than your mind, to earn. Charity towards body, heart, money, and promise are all important. I essentially believe literacy and education can solve fundamental issues of poverty. I also realised that when you are in the heart of it all, the close proximity blurs your sight. Moving away from Mumbai allowed me to visualise the city and its people more objectively and with less cynicism. 

Mother and Children, 2012, Acrylic on canvas

In 'Burden of Dreams', several works are interlaid with texts and depiction of painted brick. Could you take us into as to why and how you brought all of these elements together?
I used to photograph manual workers at construction sites. Some of these images included them carrying heavy material on their back/ head/ shoulders and this became the starting point for ‘Burden of Dreams’. Chatting with these workers clued me into their daily routine. Bricks used in construction unite to form walls, which in turn divide spaces.

They are the perfect metaphor to complement the work. They also add weight to the paintings. I am an avid reader and stories form an essential part of my life. Literacy is a privilege; however, the reality is such that those who possess it take it for granted while those who lack it can’t even begin to imagine how it could change their lives. The reason for using illegible text was to momentarily evoke the feeling of helplessness in the viewer that an illiterate person feels every day. All these elements were things I’d already used before. It seemed logical that they would come together in time.

Haath-Gadi, 2012, Wood, Iron, Twine, Enamel and Ink

What was it like to work with sculptures after having dealt with a two-dimensional space? What new possibilities and challenges did it afford you? Would you continue to work with them or do you envisage returning to paintings? 

I think of myself primarily as a painter although I enjoy challenging myself with new media and surfaces. The haath-gadi and bricks were natural extensions of the paintings that I was then working on. The three-dimensional forms had paint and detailed markings on them in form of text, thus rendering them painterly.The surface of the cart and bricks is painted in bright colors and topped up with glossy varnish to create a toy-like shiny surface, reminiscent of Lego brick. I wanted to question the randomness of privilege awarded by birth- where some children work by pulling carts and making bricks in kilns, while others get to study and play. I would definitely continue working with different media if called for by my paintings. I think the body of work needs to seamlessly blend together and be cohesive about the subject matter and the medium is just a vehicle to get there.

 Please tell us more about your work which was displayed at Art on Armitage.
Art on Armitage is a Chicago-based window gallery. It brings art out of the confines of the traditional art gallery and into the public realm. It's reputed for demystifying and making art accessible and showcasing artists who have strong social messages to convey. On securing a space to show there, I decided upon a combination of installation and paintings. The latter were from the 'Burden of Dream' series while the installation was a haath-gadi that fluidly converts itself into a home/sleeping bunker. The interior of the haath-gadi is wrought from found strips of wood, tarp, and jute-strings and decorated with good luck charms of nimboo-mirchi (lemon-chili pepper), images of Lord Ganesha, and hero-worship film-posters. The tarp itself was covered with graffiti-like scribbles of text from school-books, poems, and math equations. I called it 'Work-Life-Balance' because of the irony: it is such a white collar term and the life of these workers actually has no balance. Their time is spent in struggling for survival and dreaming of a better future.

You are also the Art Editor at Urban Confustions. How does that contribute and enrich your artistic life?
Urban Confustions is a publication that brings together women poets, artists and authors. As its Art editor, I’ve had the opportunity to curate and meet some wonderful artists. UC lends exposure to talented women artists, helps me build and strengthen networking relationships and brings literature and art together.

What did you most recently work upon? 
I've been involved in a public streetscape design project at Devon Avenue, Chicago via the Chicago Public Art project. Devon Avenue is the 'Little India' of Chicago. We are working with urban designers, City Department of Transport, the Alderman's office and community to beautify the neighborhood through customised design.

 Find out more about Tulika Ladsariya's work at http://tulika.ladsariya.com/.